Black tenor returns home, makes history in opera

Tenor and former longtime Washington, D.C. resident Issachah Savage laughs when he was told of a most flattering comparison made by an opera legend.

“There’s only one Pavarotti,” Savage said, responding to an earlier comment attributed to the late Charlotte Wesley Holloman when she said of the rising star, “Listen to Issachah Savage… the black Pavarotti.”

“No one can be Pavarotti, black, white or whatever, it’s not possible,” Savage humbly said. It is likely the kind of innocuous modesty that has helped to propel the Morgan State and Catholic University graduate into an unlikely star of the opera.

On Saturday, October 3, 2015, Savage returns to the region as the National Philharmonic presents a special one-time performance of Wagner’s Rienzi, a concert opera featuring Savage at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda.

Showtime is scheduled for 8 p.m. and the concert version traces the protagonist’s journey from liberator to absolute despot before culminating in his ultimate downfall. The dramatic composition features marches, romantic melodies, elaborate choruses and brass-centered fanfares, with Savage in the middle of it all.

Officials at the Wagner Society of Washington D.C., one of the city’s most vibrant cultural institutions, say that Savage is the first African-American in the lead role.

“I’ve been singing all of my life. I started in the church,” said Savage, who once performed as a tenor soloist at First Baptist Church on 16th Street in Northwest, Washington D.C.

“What got me on the opera track was my high school experience at Creative and Performing Arts High School [in Philadelphia] where my choir director saw in me that I didn’t know was there,” Savage said. “I think he sensed that I was more afraid of the more classical sound and he sensed that I was bashful so he encouraged that.”

Savage hasn’t looked back. He has earned critical acclaim, winning the 2014 Seattle International Wagner Competition including garnering the main prize, audience favorite prize, orchestra favorite prize, and a special honor by Speight Jenkins, the former director of the Seattle opera.

Savage made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Don Riccardo in Verdi’s Ernani under James Levine. During the 2014-2015 Season, he debuted with the Orchestre National de Bordeaux-Aquitaine in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Santa Fe Symphony in Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, and with the Seattle Youth Symphony in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Savage’s resume also includes performances at the Houston Grand Opera; with the Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center and the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program for gifted young singers where he performed the finale to Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Merola Grand Finale concert that included a performance of Otello in the Schwabacher Summer Concert series.

“I’m always aspiring to more and I definitely want to grow more because there are so many roles out there and I want to learn,” Savage said. “Even though I’ve accomplished a little bit, there’s so much more out there and I’m very much an infant and there’s a long way to go for me to keep developing.”

Born into a musical and religious family, Savage says he began performing in church at age five. He has gone on to earn a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Morgan State and a master’s degree in opera voice performance from Catholic University.

Now, with a performance at the Strathmore, Savage has a home coming of sorts.

“I lived about 10 minutes from the Capitol in Southeast, Washington and I love D.C. very much. For me, it’s really a full circle moment as I spent a good deal of time honing my skills and talents there and working under the auspices of the Washington Wagner Society,” Savage said.

“Being able to come back where it all kind of got started is really full circle. I only hope that the audience will appreciate everything about the performance and I’m sure that the orchestra will bring beauty to the performance and the cast is phenomenal as is the story line,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

For tickets, visit www.strathmore.org. Children ages 7-17 can attend National Philharmonic concerts for free. To reserve free tickets for children, call Strathmore Ticket Office at 301-581-5100.